Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Reality Check

I've been working on another Qube Question but am awkwardly reminded each time I look at the blog that I promised to share the outcome of my inquiry into the integrity of my own life. (Why did I do that?)

It is difficult to distill. Examining myself with the question, "Do I live like that's true?" has enabled sundry observations, and stimulated thoughts of remedies as diverse as moving to Alaska, going back to school, swearing off electricity, moving into an urban area, writing more, writing less, planting a garden. I honestly think my particulars would bore you, so instead of telling you where I fall short and what I'm going to change, I want to talk a little bit about living with integrity, a word which has become integral to the discussion on this blog. "Integrity" is defined as "wholeness or completeness", and the word "integral" means "necessary to the whole". We extend this to compliance with moral standards, because in order for a thing to be whole, there mustn't be any missing parts. Our actual lives must be congruent with the idea of a right life.

Up until now we've talked about ways to stuff ourselves into congruence (habits) and we've flirted with conceptions of the original or ideal shape we should measure ourselves against. Taking the idea of integrity as "wholeness", I'm going to suggest that a true definition of integrity is more than alignment with one's personal philosophy or "world view", although achievement of said alignment would be impressive, indeed. I do believe in absolutes of some kind; I believe there are more and less healthy environments for human growth. I believe there is such a thing as proper growth or, health. Some things are true about the human condition and others are false, and it doesn't really matter how we feel about it. But personal integrity is also more elusive and individual than searching out these “health components”. All plants need light and nutrients, but in varying kind and degree.

Oliver Sacks' book, Awakenings, explores health and illness through the experiences of twenty post-encephalitic patients treated with the drug L-Dopa, during the summer of 1969. In it, Dr. Sacks notes the personal nature of disease. Illness is not a thing in itself, but rather its manifestations and character are defined by the individuality of the person. Illness grows out of our personal environment. It is an unnatural growth and becomes a weight, heavy enough to create a dent in wellness or wholeness. We acknowledge our intuitive grasp of this idea when we describe our state of health with the common phrase, "out of shape". So, while it is possible to say, for example, that I "have the flu", it is perhaps more accurate to say that the particulars which constitute "me" are interacting with (or yielding to) a particular viral strain, resulting in my being bent out of shape. The shape I manifest is similar enough to the one most other people exhibit when confronted with this same virus, so we can lump individual reactions together and call them "flu-symptoms". But, Dr. Sacks points out, “...modern medicine, increasingly, dismisses our existence, either reducing us to identical replicas reacting to fixed 'stimuli' in equally fixed ways, or seeing our diseases as purely alien and bad, without organic relation to the person who is ill. The therapeutic correlate of such notions, of course, is the idea that one must attack the disease with all the weapons one has, and that one can launch the attack with total impunity, without a thought for the person who is ill.” So, treating the flu as something separate from the individual, focusing only on eradicating it, is misguided. The flu, as we know it, never occurs outside a unique, living entity.

Integrity, like health, is a state of wholeness. I asked a friend, years ago, what she wanted to do with her life and she said, simply, "to live well". Most of us would echo her sentiment, even if we haven't formulated it in as straight-forward a way. The question which has plagued me, since, is the obvious retort to her answer: "But what is living well?" or, as we have explored, "what counts as success?" I've spent much unproductive energy and time trying to sort this out philosophically; looking for a way to diagnose and treat the disease that bends us all out of shape. And while it may be true that there is a disease, it is also true that it takes place in me; not abstractly, but in me.

So, what does it mean for me to have integrity? What if it means living in such a way as to combat or undo the effects of illness in me? In one sense, this sounds very vague; but in another, it is much more specific than I have ever been able to be with this question. What if there is an over-arching structure (or personality) to the world and my movement in it is good or bad in relation to how well I and the things I interact with can retain or gain wholeness? This opens up everything to free will but at the same time holds a firm belief in destiny. I am freed from the weight of choosing the "one right thing" but at the same time, miraculously allowed specificity. I can take a title as general as "mother" or "wife" or "friend" and make it as specific as "Rachael King".

Dr. Sacks briefly discusses health and disease in terms of design. He says, “Health is infinite and expansive in mode, and reaches out to be filled with the fullness of the world; whereas disease is finite and reductive in mode, and endeavours to reduce the world to itself.” Reaching for wholeness, then, involves casting out wide nets into the world to catch mystery and let it fill us; wet plaster seeping into cracks. Disease is inherently pessimistic. The illness in us wants to narrow our sights; like my description of feeling stuck in the valley between myself and the truth—it is tempting to make all the world a monolith of disease. Health is about wideness, but also about specificity, about the specific indentation of disease that we each bear. If we can call disease or immorality or brokenness what it is—a parasite deriving its shape from our individual environment—then we can learn something about the way we should live, about our individual necessity, by noticing what its symptoms are pointing toward.

When I suggested the purpose of my life may not be so different from a fish’s, I think I was on to something. We are both successful by living according to our essence. The fish does what he does because of instinct; because of his essential fish-ness, which isn’t significantly different from the fish-ness of his neighbor in the next coral reef. My essential human-ness, however, dictates not only that I eat and sleep and love, but also that I am an individual; who in this case has a weakness for pasta, sleeps with an arm under two stacked pillows, and would be qualitatively reduced without having borne children. These particular things are not essential to being human, but a terrain made up of particulars, is. Listen to Annie Dillard, in her essay, "Living Like Weasels":

…once, a man shot an eagle out of the sky. He examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to his throat. The supposition is that the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won. I would like to have seen that eagle from the air a few weeks or months before he was shot: was the whole weasel still attached to his feathered throat, a fur pendant? Or did the eagle eat what he could reach, gutting the living weasel with his talons before his breast, bending his beak, cleaning the beautiful airborne bones?

...I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should. And I suspect that for me the way is like the weasel’s: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.

…We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—even of silence—by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t “attack” anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity.

I think it would be well, and proper and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft, even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Do you live like that’s true?

Over the past four months, the various Qube Books questions I have pondered, studied and written about have taken me on a personal journey. Starting with these questions, I have posed further questions to myself and to you. With your help, I have formulated the beginnings of answers and have asserted some things that I believe to be true. Particularly, in our discussion of the last question, I wrapped up the idea of success in the metaphor of growth; success being right or straight growth, which requires us to live in accordance with truth. So during this week, I’ve been wondering, “how successful am I?” In the course of this blog, I have called many things true; but do I live like these are true?

I rather quickly saw my own personal chasm—between my knowledge of the good and my embodying of it—widen and deepen, looming very large, indeed. And just at this point, I made a near fatal mistake. I embraced pessimism. The dictionary defines pessimism as: the doctrine that the existing world is the worst of all possible worlds, or that all things naturally tend to evil. In other words, pessimism makes its home in the molten rock at the very bottom of the chasm; it does not acknowledge true good nor does it take any notice of me, clinging to the opposite canyon wall as I search and reach for virtue. My own small “descent into hell” found expression in an Email of Great Despair which I sent to my friend, who thankfully didn’t tolerate my rant and effectively shut me up. Ironically, frustration over my failure to live in accordance with truth had led me to further perjure myself by behaving as if evil were stronger than good or as if ugliness could trump beauty. I said my mistake was a near fatal one, but that is only because I have a very good friend. Pessimism, unchecked, is always fatal to thought and progress.

It is helpful to take a periodic moral inventory of ourselves; doing so can expose not only where our actions fail to reflect truth but where, perhaps we have misjudged something to be true and are unable to act in accordance with it because it contradicts the truth about us and our world. I can deny gravity until I'm blue in the face, but I will continue to set my water glass securely on the table. Or—more relevantly—I can profess pessimism concerning my actions but at the end of the day, I still kiss my sons and sing them a lullaby.

To be human is to be dignified as moral agents in this world. With this distinction, comes the responsibility to live as if we really are moral agents. On our drive to school a few mornings ago, my ten year old and I explored his breakfast table unkindness toward his brother. He said, “I don’t want to be mean to him, but it’s so much easier to do bad than it is to do good.” And in a way, it is. Life requires maintenance, in addition to advancement, if we are ever to hold or incarnate the truths we unearth. I think this is where habit training comes in; if we lay the tracks of habit, we ease our moral engine maintenance effort considerably.

In this sense, we can be “living successfully” in a way that is roughly consistent with our professed beliefs. But in another sense, there is no single moment in which we personify perfection or even success. We aren’t static beings. No matter how far we progress or how far we regress, we are always standing at the moment of reckoning; we are perpetually facing the chasm between ourselves and what is good and at any moment, any one of us may widen or narrow the gap.

Along these lines, I intend to conduct a little experiment over the next two weeks. I’m going to ask myself the double-sided question, “Do I live like that’s true?”, examining both my behavior and my assertions for short-comings. I’ll let you know what I come up with. Let me know what you think about this question and join in my experiment, if you dare.